Just leave it to Simon Belmont, vampire hunter!
I’m just going to put this out there so you know exactly where I stand: I love Castlevania. I don’t mean the series, as I haven’t played many of the titles. I’m referring to the original Castlevania. It sits quite high on my favourite games on the NES list, though I don’t keep track, so I can’t say how high exactly. I’m not really sure what it is about the game, I just get sucked into it. It’s an impressively designed game, especially when you take the date it was released into account.
Castlevania, at its core, is a simple side-scrolling action game. You play as Simon Belmont, descendant of a long line of vampire hunters, who must enter Castlevania, armed only with a whip, to defeat Dracula. Along the way, you face off against a large variety of classic movie monsters. You power up, you defeat waves of lesser enemies, you beat the boss, and then you move onto the next level. It’s nothing unique or overly creative, but it doesn’t have to be. It does what it does so well, and above all else it’s extremely fun.
For an NES game that came out in 1986, Castlevania has excellent graphics. Even more impressive is its outstanding atmosphere, something that is understandably difficult to pull off on the NES’s limited hardware. The game’s stages are all wonderfully well done. I’m especially a fan of the third level’s skylines and crumbling walls. It’s especially surprising how well the game’s huge variety of levels flow together. If the boss battles weren’t there to bookend each level, they would connect and transition in a way that is very unusual for the console.
Castlevania’s music is some of the best on the NES. Many of the songs are real standouts. The song that plays over the third level is especially catchy and I found myself humming along and tapping my foot to it, as corny as that sounds. The soundtrack does a lot to compliment the gameplay too, as it makes it easier to get into the role of the heroic Simon Belmont as he trudges along. This is probably the reason that many of the later Castlevania games feature remixed versions of these songs. It’s really quite impressive.
Castlevania also features that very specific NES brand of difficulty. The kind of difficulty that is more often found in the Ninja Gaiden and Mega Man series. Not unfair, per se, but very, very challenging. It can certainly be frustrating when you find yourself killed instantly simply because you were unable to avoid a medusa head while standing on a ledge. When frustration builds, Castlevania starts to feel cheap. A number of times I found myself cussing at the screen, confounded by my life being whittled away by a hunchback who I just couldn’t seem to land a blow on. Don’t be surprised if you wind up trying to break your controller, but remember that if you do manage to beat Dracula at the end of the game, victory will taste all the sweeter.
Simon Belmont moves very stiffly, it’s like he suffers from arthritis. The only pace he can move at throughout the entire game is a slow march. Once he jumps, there is no correcting his course. Stairs are fickle things, once you start up them, you can only get off at the top or bottom. Yet, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Maybe it’s just me, but I love how Castlevania controls. I think it complements the feel of the game, once you get used to it. It really helps me feel like I’m single-mindedly trudging through the waves of baddies, with no thought of failure in my head. Though, maybe I’m just strange like that. You might just find it feels stiff.
Castlevania has a big reliance on pattern enemies. You’ve probably heard of them: bats, medusa heads, and hunchbacks. They’re mostly nuisances, but they’re big nuisances. Simon also has this strange habit of leaping back a few feet every time he’s hit. This can lead to a lot of frustration when one moment you’re standing on a ledge with full health, and the next, you’re plummeting to an instant death because you got hit from above by a hunchback. I have to once again say that I feel this adds to the feel of the game. A lot of tense moments are created from the knowledge that at any moment, one of the games easily defeated pattern enemies could zoom in from the side of the screen and kill you in a single hit. However, you may just find it frustrating.
Boss battles are also a minor weak point of the game. There is a large variety of them, and they are all very different, but there’s little strategy involved in defeating them. Many can be vanquished quite easily using holy water. Some of them just require a lot of whipping at the right time. On top of that, a few of them are outrageously cheap. Death, for instance, spawns a room full of homing scythes that deal massive damage. Dracula himself is less cheap, but he does require a great deal of practice to finally overcome.
Lastly and least of all, I hate the secondary item system in this game. More than once I found myself nearing a boss battle with level three holy water in my inventory. I break a candle and what should land on me? A throwing dagger, which instantly replaces my upgraded holy water. I really wish secondary items would stack and could be selected, or at the very least you had an option not to pick it up. It’s very frustrating when something that you’ve been cultivating for an entire level gets replaced by an item you didn’t want, and indeed never intended to pick up. Of course, being careful about what you pick up is always an option.
The Bottom Line
Castlevania is a remarkable game. All the polish that has gone into it shines brightly, and it’s hard not to be charmed by it. Almost everything in the game is completely standout. It’s challenging, atmospheric, and well designed. Sure, the storyline is barely there, but such was the case in most NES games. As I said earlier, I love Castlevania, and it is among my favourite titles for the NES. That said, I haven’t spent a lot of time with the third game in the series, but I plan to. For all I know, I’ll enjoy that one more. Also, I haven’t played a single port of Castlevania, so for all I know, there’s a more definitive version out there. In any case, in my experience, Castlevania is an AMAZING game, and I recommend it to anyone who owns an NES. Incidentally, Simon Belmont was my favourite character in the cartoon, Captain N: The Game Master. Though, they did take a lot of liberties with his character.